It sounds clichéd but Upington really is a beautiful part of the world. I’ve visited every year for the past eight years as one of the lucky few who get to judge the Spar Country Cellars Winemaker of the Year competition. Orange River Cellars with its five wineries, 400km apart, supplies the wine for Spar’s own brand Carnival and Country Cellars ranges. Eight years ago Ray Edwards, group liquor manager for Spar, undertook to improve the quality of wine that was going into his own brands. Spar’s customers obviously appreciate his efforts since he did R27 million worth of business with the winery last year! That’s a lot of wine – and if were simply cheap and nasty, consumers wouldn’t return for more.
I’ll be honest, in the early years of the competition it was hard work! We found it difficult to score a wine a meagre 13 or 14 out of 20. The wines were acidic, thin, lacking in character or even interest and often clumsily made or faulty. The notable exceptions were the muscadels, jerepiko and hanepoot which are still sublime.
2009 marked a sea change. 39 wines in total – none of which scored under 14. Among the whites we rated Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Colombar, along with some really interesting white blends many of which comfortably attained a comprehensive 4 Star rating. All were varietally sound, balanced and interesting. The same with the reds – delicious Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Ruby Cabernet – and blends with a splash of Pinotage in them were equally good.
The contrast with the wines of eight years ago was massive. What set the 2009 wines apart were complexity and nuance, length of flavour, well judged ripeness and fruit purity, skill and proficiency. If there was one criticism it was of too much oak – but then the Oranjerivier Cellars winemakers have only had access to oak in any form for the past three or four years so their enthusiasm (and lack of experience) is understandable.
This is not intended as a plug for Spar or Oranjerivier – but rather as a very obvious example of the massive strides in quality improvement that South African wine has undergone in a very short space of time. Further evidence was presented in the form of a leisurely tasting we did at our guest house. Some of South Africa’s best wines were stacked up against top international examples – and showed extremely well. (To reproduce the list would take up too much space. Check out Neil Pendock’s blog – blogs.timeslive.co.za/pendock/)
It’s often been said that the Western Cape winelands are among the most beautiful in the world. But when you approach Upington by air, and see the swathe of green vegetation flanking the meandering Gariep River (formerly known as the Orange) you have to concede that this arid land, with its typical longitudinal red sand dunes and sparse scrubby Kalahari vegetation, also rates a mention – and now, serious attention. I’ve always maintained that with an area stretching 400km along the banks of this river, there have to be special pockets of terroir capable of producing awesome wines – and finally, we’re beginning to see some of that promise realised.
Hats off to Orange River Cellars and to Spar for making it happen.